LDS Church, LGBT advocates back anti-discrimination, religious rights bill
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Calling it a monumental and historic day, Utah lawmakers unveiled much-anticipated legislation Wednesday that aims to balance religious freedom and protections against discrimination of LGBT people in the workplace and housing.
Legislators, gay rights advocates, community leaders and two apostles and a Young Women leader of the LDS Church stood together at a news conference introducing the proposal. In a rare move, the church publicly backed a specific bill before the Utah Legislature.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is very pleased to support SB296," said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Elder Christofferson said some people will criticize the bill, but it contains "strong" religious freedom protections and a "fair" approach to housing and employment. He said the church acknowledged at the outset that all parties might not get what they want, but they negotiated complex issues in a spirit of goodwill and respect.
"It is better that both sides get most of what is desired than to have a winner-take-all where one side loses," he said.
The bill proposes to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Utah's anti-discrimination laws for housing and employment, and clarify exemptions for religious institutions and provide protections for religious expression.
Supporters of the legislation say it can serve as a model for other states wrestling with the same issues.
"If Utah can do this, in my opinion, it can be done anywhere in the nation," said Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who helped write the bill.
Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams said years ago as a young gay man and former LDS missionary he could never picture the LGBT community standing together with LDS apostles.
"If the 20-year-old in me could have seen this day, I would have felt tremendous hope for the future," he said.
The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates 55,000 LGBT adults live in Utah, including 37,000 in the workforce. In response to a 2010 survey, 43 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual Utahns and 67 percent of transgender respondents reported being fired, denied a job, denied a promotion, or having experienced other forms of discrimination at some point in their lives, according to the institute.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said the bill drives a spike into the idea that religious liberties and gay rights can't co-exist. He has run legislation seeking to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for three years. He said he was excited about including the religious protections.
"People of faith can act like people of faith. They can talk like people of faith," Urquhart said.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said Utah is sending a message to the world that it's willing to take on the "great social issues of our time" and find common ground.
"Oh, if the country could be like this," he said. "This bill is a model — not just of legislation, but more importantly of how to bridge the cultural rift tearing America apart."
Dabakis, Adams, Urquhart and Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, formed a working group to draft the bill that was filed today.
Dee said he went home after late-night negotiations wondering if it would ever get done. "In one sentence I would say we are all children of a Heavenly Father who loves us equally," he said.
SB296 would prohibit employers from discriminating against job applicants and employees based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Landlords and property owners also would be banned from discriminating against LGBT people.
Protections for employment and housing do not create a special or protected class for other purposes, according to the bill.
Everyone would be afforded the same free-speech protections in their private lives and could not be fired for their religious, personal or political beliefs about marriage, family and sexuality.
The bills seeks to protect churches and their affiliates, religious schools, small or family-owned businesses, and specifically the Boy Scouts of America. It would not prohibit employers from setting "reasonable" dress and grooming standards and designating sex-specific bathrooms or showers.
It does not contain religious exemptions from nondiscrimination provisions for individuals or for-profit businesses.
The proposed law would take precedence over nondiscrimination ordinances in about 20 Utah cities and counties.
"If Utah can get this balance between religious liberty and gay rights right, I really think it will be the pivot moment for the country," said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a University of Illinois law professor who helped draft the bill.
She described the legislation as "détente."
"We have to find a way to live together. We just can't endlessly be litigating against each other. We can't endlessly be in culture wars," Wilson said. "If you want to know why Utah got it right, it's because they actually called a truce in the culture war."
Dabakis, the state's only openly gay legislator who married his longtime partner in late 2013, said the LDS Church and the LGBT community started to come together after the divisiveness and bitterness of Proposition 8 in California in 2008.
LDS Church leaders last month called on government officials to protect religious rights while also protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels and transportation. Church leaders also emphasized that people should not be forced to perform services that go against their religious beliefs.
"We have rolled up our sleeves, and with respect and civility, we have found common ground," said Dabakis. "This bill is the result of those discussions, as well as countless other gatherings with important community groups all across Utah."
Not everyone is pleased with the outcome of that effort.
"I don't like it," said Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka. "I'm disappointed in what's in there for religious protection." She said it's missing protections for religious consciences and religious expression.
She said the bill could make LGBT people a protected class in areas other than housing and employment.
"Hopefully, it does not go outside those two areas. We'll see what happens," Ruzicka said.
The conservative Sutherland Institute supports the LDS Church's approach to the issue but is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the bill.
Sutherland points out that the protections in SB296 are limited to discrimination law. It wants the Legislature to include other religious liberty concerns outside of employment and housing such as the ability of parents to pass on moral standards to their children and people of faith to act on their marriage beliefs without fear of retribution.
"We certainly want to be open to hear some other contexts that haven't been addressed yet that don't fit within sexual orientation and discrimination but are going to need some coverage like protections of people who celebrate marriages," said Bill Duncan, director of Sutherland's Center for Family and Society.
"There's still work to do. But in terms of this bill, we're glad to see some progress on the religious liberty front," he said. "I don't want to say it goes all the way. I think there are some things we definitely could look at."
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT rights organization, supports SB296, calling it an "extraordinary moment" for Utah.
“The desire exhibited by the Mormon church to work toward common ground should serve as a model for other faith traditions here in the United States," the campaign's president, Chad Griffin, said in a statement.
The Senate Business and Labor Committee will hold a hearing on the bill Thursday morning. If it passes, it will go to the full Senate.
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee on a 6-5 vote moved a separate bill on religious freedom and nondiscrimination to the House floor.
HB322 would add religious liberty provisions and protection of "varying forms of sex-related interests" to the to the state's anti-discrimination and fair housing laws. It also says the legal exercise of religious liberty is a defense to claims of discrimination, but attempts to ensure religious liberty claims are not abused or construed as a license to discriminate.
Bill sponsor Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, sees his proposal, which he called "sensitively balanced," as complementary to SB296.
"It fills a lot of gaps," he said.
Christensen said he intends to talk with the Senate sponsors to see how the bills could work together to "get it just right."
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